South Carolina Dharma Group

Information about this center is no longer updated. This data was last updated on 5 February 2018.

Phone: (803) 467-7759
[flickr_set id="72157621942461300"] History The group was formed in 2001 as an offshoot of the Charleston Tibetan Society (CTS). In November 2000, Geshe Topgyal, resident teacher at CTS, started traveling to Columbia every other weekend to give teachings. Geshe Topgyal’s teachings attracted a fairly loyal and consistent group of followers, and by August of 2001, the group was large enough that Geshe Topgyal recommended that the group form their own group officially. The group incorporated, calling itself the South Carolina Dharma Group, and raised money to bring Geshe Ngawang Phuntsok from India in May 2002 to be the resident monk in Columbia. (Geshe Phuntsok had been a student of Geshe Topgyal in the Drepung Monastery.) In March 2003, the group began renting a small house in a residential neighborhood, which served as the group's meeting center and as Geshe Phuntsok's residence. (Prior to this time, the group met at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Columbia, whose congregation had allowed the group to use their facilities for meeting space.) In August 2003, Geshe Phuntsok returned to India for an indefinite period of time to continue his studies of English to enable him to most benefit others. According to Cox (president of SCDG), "he intends to find the English words for the dharma and then he will return to us." People come from all over the state to attend Geshe Topgyal's teachings. About 5 or 6 people come from Augusta (GA), Greenville, Rock Hill, and Florence. Ethnicity: A good “cross-section,” according to spokesperson Frank Heflin: white, African-American, Lebanese. There used to be a Japanese person and a couple from Singapore who have since returned to Singapore. Languages spoken: English; Tibetan (for chanting, mantras; also for studying the language to be able to read scriptures in original language); Sanskrit (for mantras) Ages: The youngest members are in their mid-20s, the oldest in their 50s. Because the group is so small, there are not many children. Some of the members have children, so there are “children that get dragged to events,” and one member involves her son at home, e.g., teaching him meditation practices. People bring their children mainly to the social events of the center. The group does not exclude children, but they simply have not been a strong presence; thus there are no special programs or considerations for children. Description The South Carolina Dharma Center is a small one-story house located in a residential neighborhood on the Eastern side of Columbia, near Interstate 77. In the entryway between the front door and the shrine room is a bulletin board with announcements and interesting newspaper clips and a rack for leaving one's shoes before entering. A cloth curtain separates the entryway from the shrine room. The shrine room is set up in the front room of the house (in what would be the living room area). The shrine includes a central gold figure of the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni) in front of a mandala. On either side of the Buddha is a picture of the Dalai Lama and a peacock feather, which dispels negativities and is believed to have special transforming energy, as Geshe Topgyal explained. There is a larger, stone figure of the historical Buddha on the right side of the shrine, and a small Tibetan flag on the left side of the shrine. In front of the central Buddha are the traditional seven offering bowls (in this case all filled with water) and three candles. Hanging on the wall behind the shrine table are three thangkas (traditional embroidered cloth tapestries). The central thangka depicts the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni) and the two thangkas on either side depict Green Tara, the most prominent female enlightened figure in Tibetan Buddhism. On other walls in the shrine room are another picture of the Dalai Lama and a larger Tibetan flag. The members of the dharma group sit on meditation cushions during the teachings, and there are also several tray tables on the floor in front of some of the cushions. Sitting on each tray table are a booklet of the various chants and teachings used during a service, a small bell and vajra (used to hit the bell). Directly behind the shrine room is the kitchen, which is used for breaks between the teaching sessions, during which the members enjoy a wide assortment of tea and cookies. Administration The SCDG is governed by a seven-member board of directors, which includes the group's five officers and two additional members. The officers consist of a president, two vice presidents, a secretary and a treasurer. The board has regular meetings and a detailed set of bylaws outlining the governing procedures. Within the administration there are also several committees, dealing with membership and special events. There is a weekly email newsletter, sent out by the president, that informs members of upcoming events. Relations with other Buddhist Communities The SC Dharma Group has close ties with the Charleston Tibetan Society since the SCDG formed as "branch" of the CTS. The two groups get together for social events, and Geshe Topgyal travels to Columbia on a biweekly basis. The group has no official affiliations with other Columbia Buddhist groups, but members from other Buddhist groups in Columbia (particularly people from the Shambhala group) sometimes come to SCDG events . The SC Dharma Group always invites other Buddhists to their public teachings, but have not had any “joint meetings” with these other groups. SCDG does not belong to any national networks; the monks came from Drepung Monastery, affiliated with the Dalai Lama’s tradition, but there is no official membership in any national “organization.” Interfaith Relations The group is not affiliated with Partners in Dialogue (a local interfaith group based at the University of South Carolina), but Cox is on the email list of the Christian Interfaith Council in Columbia. She and Geshe Phuntsok participated in an interfaith Sept. 11 memorial service in 2002 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia. The group also receives invitations from USC to speak to religion classes about Buddhism and they have been involved in this. Cox and Heflin mentioned that the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Columbia has been very helpful to the SC Dharma Group; SCDG used to meet at the UU's building before they obtained their own dharma center.